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In the Battle Between Market Economists and Democracy, the Market is Winning

October 8, 2017

As I type this post, I am listening to a 12 minute interview between WBUR reporter Meghna Chakrabarti and Debra Meier and Emily Gasoi, whose recent book, “These Schools Belong to You and Me: Why We Can’t Afford to Abandon Our Public Schools. 12 minutes is hardly enough time to do justice to this topic, but at least their ideas were receiving some air time, which is increasingly difficult even in an era of 24/7 news coverage.

At the outset of the interview, Ms. Meier contends that those who advocate for school reform promote the notion that the marketplace is a “form of democracy where consumers are free to choose what they want,” a concept she believes is contrary to the true democratic principles that govern our country. And this warped perception equating “consumer choice” with “democracy” is warped even more because the primary metric for consumers to base their decision on is standardized test scores.

Ms. Chakrabarti pushed Ms. Meier on the distinction between “decision making vs. choice” as described in their book in an effort to help listeners understand the somewhat nuanced difference between the two. Ms. Meier indicated that “choice” is based on limited universe of options, and those options are defined by someone else. In the case of education “reformers”, the “someone else” would ultimately be corporations determined to make a profit. Decision making is procedural, it’s the means by which decisions are made and enables a governing board to “shape the future”. Ms. Meier emphasized that deciding what to buy at a store is not a “democratic act”, it’s an exercise of individual choice. She didn’t say so, but it’s clear that the team of store owners who decide how to operate their store and what to sell in the store are making decisions… and if the owners are elected by the general public they are engaging in a democratic act. Ms. Meier concluded her answer by emphasizing that democracy depends on everyone having relatively equal power, and in our current economy there are gross inequalities of wealth AND power.

In the final 2 minutes, Ms. Chakrabarti asked Ms. Gasoi what could be done in the short run to stem the erosion of democracy in schools today. Ms. Gasoi’s answer resonated with me. She suggested that schools and school boards should spend less time worrying about standardized tests… and she suggested that ESSA provided states with an opportunity to do just that. In her words, ESSA provides a chance for states to “dial back on standardized tests as a means of measuring school quality”. 

Debra Meier and Emily Gasoi are right. Our public education system is becoming less and less democratic and the marketplace is contributing to the inequality that ungirds the erosion of democracy in public education. The “school store” in affluent communities has many more choices than the “school store” in a poor community, and as states hand over the operation of “low performing” schools to deregulated for profit charters instead of having them governed by local school boards forced to operate with limited funds and to comply with state guidelines democracy is increasingly eroded.

When it comes to ESSA, though, as noted in several other posts on this blog, “…the promise of states dialing back on standardized tests as a means of measuring school quality” is not materializing… and as long as standardized test scores drive State decision making and state legislatures conflate market-driven “choice” with democracy our true democracy will lose out to the marketplace and public education as it was envisioned by those in the 19th century will disappear… and with its disappearance the notion of upward mobility will disappear as well.

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